Saturday, June 29, 2013

Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Traditions and Catholic Consensus

Skip Sundberg's new book, Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Tradition and Catholic Consensus, is equal parts historical recovery, liturgical renewal, and wistful theology. It is surprising that such a "modest" proposal (he is primarily proposing changes in liturgical practice) can have such deep anthropological and theological implications.

Here's Sundberg's basic definition of worship: "To call Christians to repentance; to warn them to be under no illusion as to who they are and how far they fall short when they stand before God and holy things; to teach them to worship God in humility; to feed them the Bread of Life; to make them ready to give testimony to Christ in word and deed."

This focus on repentance as definition of worship stand in contrast, for Sundberg, to much of the eucharistic piety that informs contemporary liturgical renewal. He is calling for a somewhat more sectarian voice to hold sway in what has become primarily a "churchly" approach to worship.

Sundberg makes his case in compelling fashion. He begins by examining early church traditions around penance and repentance. A lengthy middle chapter then examines Luther and the binding key in considerable detail, examining the relationship between repentance and baptism, communion, catechization, private and corporate confession, and the liturgical rites of the reformation era.

Sundberg then offers two very closely argued chapters spelling out in historical detail the attack on private confession, and the emergence of an opposing tradition to penitential piety that he dubs eucharistic piety or "worship as ritual participation in the divine."

Many of the debates presented in these chapters are not necessarily new to those who have read a bit in the liturgical renewal movement or the history of the development of Lutheran worship. Nevertheless, I have rarely if ever read such a closely reasoned and presented case comparing the pieties.

Although as a reader I myself find eucharistic piety and the emerging ecumenical consensus around it much more compelling than many of the strands of penitential piety that seem to influence Sundberg (I am thinking especially here of Oliver K. Olson and his epigones), I completely agree with Sundberg's assertion that eucharistic piety has become a rigid and controlling orthodoxy. When theologians and historians like Sundberg make their case, they receive shrill response and steady opposition. Often, they are simply silenced.

For this reason alone, I hope Sundberg's book receives a wide readership. Even if readers may disagree in certain details, the argument for worship as repentance has considerable merit. Christians can and should lead with repentance. It is a core mark of the church and the Christian life. It should imbue much of what we do in Christian worship.

If I have a quibble with the book, it is that it is perhaps too myopic. I know Sundberg is a historian, so he is addressing the specific historical details (especially Lutheran details) as they play out in orders of worship. Nevertheless, I would like to see him make the case on larger theological grounds. Christians repent. This is much bigger than the particular language employed for the public confession portion of the liturgy for corporate worship.

That being said, this is an incredibly compelling and well-written work of historical theology. And ultimately, it has a very compelling "why" to address. "It is very hard to face up to the ugliness of the true self, to take the journey that Luther took into the dark night of the soul. This culture, including the culture of the academy, resists it. But if we take the journey or God forces us to take the journey, we may find that we are able to hear the gospel in the ideal form that the confessions claim is possible--the gospel 'purely preached,' telling us that God is not done with us yet--'Fahter, forgive them,' says Jesus, 'for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34)" (170).

Monday, June 24, 2013

Clinical Evangelical Education (CPE for evangelical conversations)

On my short list of projects to accomplish in my 40s is to develop a program for the ELCA that is like CPE, except it is Clinical Evangelical Education. Ten weeks (400 hours) of immersive work being in evangelical conversations and writing verbatims and discussing the conversation and evangelical ministry in small supervised groups. We can call it CEE, and perhaps it can be the alternative to CPE for those called to mission and evangelism more than shepherding and chaplaincy.

For those unfamiliar with CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), it is a formative and highly immersive model for training pastors and church leaders in Christian care-giving. It is often hosted in clinical (hospital) contexts. 

Clinical Pastoral Education is an experiential education program that gives the opportunity for trainees to provide pastoral care and then to reflect on that care in consultation with peers and supervisors. Through this action-reflection model of learning, the trainees develop pastoral skill and competency. The program is very rigorous and requires commitment to 400 hours of ministry during each unit. Hours of ministry may be completed in a variety of settings. Often hospital chaplains complete four ore more units in order to be certified as chaplains.

The goal of CPE is to provide the learner the opportunity to develop pastoral competency and to foster the learner's own self-awareness as a pastoral care-giver. Tools that are used for learning are: didactics seminars, case study seminars, interpersonal relationships group seminars and individual supervision sessions.

As a Lutheran, I never had the opportunity to receive this kind of training geared towards "evangelical conversations." I cherish my CPE experience, and wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned so much about myself and about care-giving in clinical settings. 

There is just something about peer supervision, opportunities to workshop the conversations we have with each other, and I have never been in a program unit focused on the kinds of conversations I have quite regularly now as a pastor, sitting down over coffee with people who are trying to decide whether to affiliate with the church, how to reflect on new faith arising in their minds and hearts, struggling with past experiences of abusive faith communities, and more. 

I wrestle with the "how-to" of evangelism. Just like my first day in CPE, when I had to wrestle with my emotions before entering the first hospital room (I was scared out of my mind), I find certain kinds of evangelism equally frightening or nervous-making. What is it like to go door-to-door evangelizing? Should you? If you do, what kind of conversation should you host? If not door-to-door where, and how? All of these kinds of questions would be great in the CEE context.

I know I would benefit greatly from being in an action-reflection context to workshop such conversations in order to be a better and more faithful witness and evangelist. I bet a lot of people would benefit from this model.

I recently posted the CEE idea in an ELCA clergy group, and here was one response:

"The inward looking personal growth stuff of CPE was sometimes painful, always challenging and ultimately life changing. We have to be able to understand our reactions and emotions. I'm so thankful for the CPE experience. Applying the model to evangelism is genius. What are we afraid of and unsure of when it comes to mightily evangelizing?"

I have begun to look around for programs like CEE, and honestly, I have not found any. This is where you come in, dear reader. Do you know of already existing CEE programs? Is it the kind of experience from which you would benefit, either as a pastoral leader or as a ready evangelist? Is it a project worth pursuing, and if so, who will do it? Are you in?

I do know some non-Lutheran organizations have great evangelism training, like Cru and Intervarsity, and it is likely we could learn from them. But, to be somewhat blunt, I have often experienced these communities, though faithful in many ways, to have a bit more of a scientific approach to evangelism, whereas Lutherans, when they have one, have more of an artistic approach.

Having said that, one of my biggest concerns is that Lutherans have no approach to evangelism at all, or a very weak one. So even though we may differ on some particulars, we can mutually learn from each other, and I'd love to learn what kinds of programs like CEE denominations or individual churches are hosting.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Interviews with Mission Developers

If you haven't yet, consider watching some or all of these interviews with mission developers of the ELCA. Their stories and insights will inspire you.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


My main goal in this post is to inspire as many readers of this blog as humanly possible to start using the hashtag #lutherancreatives to share the story of creative Lutherans they know, and potentially buy the music, books, and other art they are creating in order to support the Lutheran tribe.

This week it was my great joy to bop around Minneapolis, MN, Monday evening with the great Lutheran rocker, Jonathan Rundman. Jonathan is a good friend, and I am inspired by his innovation and creativity. I've enjoyed his music for over a decade; I've been using his Heartland Liturgy as a setting for contemporary worship for about six years now. You can find it on his Protestant Rock Ethic album.

We stopped in at Cheapo Discs before a late supper, in order to see if they had put up a display for his new side projects' latest album, Arto Järvelä & Kaivama. They had. His side project is now in fact his main project in some ways. Finnish folk seems to be the rage in some places, so he is touring frequently with the release of this new album.

Jonathan, like many indie rock musicians, is trying to figure out what it looks like to make a living as a musician in the era of mp3s and Spotify. He recently released a new song I really like, Flying On a Plane, which you can download as a digital single. 

On the way back to the airport, I had the honor of a ride and conversation with the amazing David Scherer, otherwise known as Agapé. David is pretty much the only Lutheran rapper out there. He's incredible. He sang his song Rise Up for us while at the LWR President's Advisory Council I was attending, and again, we spent a lot of the drive talking about what it looks like to promote the creative work of each other in our circles and beyond.

Finally, when I arrived back in Arkansas, in my stack of mail was the new album from Tay Wilson. Tay crowd-funded his most recent album, Stay the Course, via Kickstarter. This is one way creative Lutherans are finding a way to make and distribute new music. One thing I love about Tay's new album is I find it even more authentically "him" and "Lutheran" than his first album, Brand New People. The first album also has a lot of great Christian rock and worship music on it, don't get me wrong. But this new one seems simply more, well, Tay-ish.

There are a lot of other projects out there to support, like Humble Walk's Artist Compilation Kickstarter project. But by this point I think you get the idea. So post away. Tell the story of #lutherancreatives. Post their stuff in your networks, tag the posts, and let's get the word out. Then sit back and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul's Christology

Given the scope and goal of David Fredrickson's wonderful new study on Philippians, Eros and the Christ (Paul in Critical Contexts)
some scholars might consider him "revisionist." So be it: if he is revisionist, he is so in the best sense of that term--he is re-visioning a text, and undermining the basic assumptions many readers bring to it. All in the service to the text and faith in Christ itself. The book is bold and brilliant in equal measure.

I have rarely (if ever) read a study in New Testament theology that so carefully situates a reading of the text within the wider sweep of Greek epistles/letters. It seems Fredrickson has read almost everything in ancient Greek literature that might compare to the language of longing and envy present in Philippians--language he believes invites us to re-consider Pauline Christology in a radically new mode.

What is the basic thrust of his book? Essentially, Fredrickson believes that the "I long for you" motif present as book ends in Philippians 1:8 and 4:1--a motif also prevalent in much epistolary literature at the time of Paul, before and after--is not only an indication of Paul's theological sensibilities and emotions in writing the letter, but is itself also indication of who Christ is as Lord, and therefore who God is. 

Letter. Paul's theology. Christology. God. All of these are nested and inter-related.

Fredrickson therefore walks the reader slowly, very slowly, through a series of arguments that build his case.

The argument can be summarized like this:

1) Paul's letters as letters both express longing, and are themselves examples of the longing that happens through presence in absence (because the letters represent Paul's absence even while he is present in and through them).

2) Paul is actually pining away like an anxious lover for the Philippians. He longs for communion with them, and this is the dominant motif of his letter, rather than expressing a dogmatic or homiletical point.

3) The language of eros present in these kinds of texts gives evidence that the pothos present in these relationships creates an extraordinary form of human relationship: when two are in love but separated each is both host and visitant of the beloved other.

4) All of this modifies the traditional interpretation of kenosis. Instead of understanding kenosis as "self-emptying," limiting the power of the self, rather kenosis is a "melting" (see the Philippians hymn in chapter two) Christ's longing for union with mortals and his desire to share with them all that he is and has and all that they are and have, just as lovers longs to do.

5) In this sense, then, the best understanding of the Christ hymn is in the context of erotic abduction.

6) If this is the case, the "longing for communion" present in Philippians takes on new sense, both the longing and the communion. Intriguingly, Paul celebrates five leaders (who he considers to be apostolic leaders) even though they are of low status in Greek culture.  Paul himself was a prisoner. Euodia and Syntyche are women. Timothy was young and Epaphroditus is a homesick slave.  Because they are embraced by, and themselves participate in, the desire for communion with an absent beloved, they have status as apostolic leaders by virtue of their claim to participation in the Lord's (Christ's) body.

7) "A longed-for koinonia with Christ authorizes Paul's own ministry and undergirds his recommendation of Euodia and Syntyche, whose legitimation for leadership roles rested on their future sharing with Christ as a bride shares all thinsg with the groom" (130).  "Paul uses nuptial imagery in 3:7-14 to delegitimize masculine hegemony and relocate confidence for ministry away from the possession of a male body to the sharing of Jesus' body. Presenting himself as a manbride of Christ, Paul both fractures the masculine structure of political legitimation and lifts up koinonia as the basis and goal of leaders in the church" (140) For Paul, Christ is the prize, the much-longed-for bride waiting at the end of the lover's struggle.

Intersubjectivity, the idea that selves (redeemed or otherwise) are on their way to becoming something (though we do not know what) through equal, mutual, and desiring relationships with other selves... and so they suffer the absence of each other. This despised frailty of longing, though apparently despised in one age, may light a fire in the theological imagination of other ages (including ours).

In his conclusion, Fredrickson states that he believes the poetry he examines (as well as some of the medieval theology) confirms a figure he had glimpsed in Paul's letters--an erotic Paul--and so he is emboldened to write about it having seen it confirmed in these authors. "They teach us there is no escape from the vulnerability to loss and to grief written inside of love. That is to say, there is no dichotomy that can insulate love from longing." For coming to know that awe-filling truth I am grateful. To project it into God is why I wrote this book" (151).

"The picture of Paul as mourning lover contrasts sharply with the one drawn by many of today's interpreters, who regard him either as a dogmatist, a rhetor, a disciplinarian, or perhaps a combination of all three."

"Paul's desire for communion with Christ opened a social space in which slaves, women, those imprisoned and those deprived of voice could reognizes themselves and be recognized as fully legitimate leaders."

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

If eschatology is more about space than time

The end is near!

Almost all of my theological training has led me to assume that eschatology (the doctrine of the 'last things') is about a future moment, a time, some time in the future, when Christ comes and consummates all things.

Although this future moment has an implicit spatial component (Christ is coming here, among us, establishing God's kingdom in our midst) the emphasis has consistently been on the chronological rather than the topological.

Think about it: when you see a placard carrying prophet screaming--THE END IS NEAR--do you think they are proclaiming the end as soon (temporally) or close (physically)?

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there has been a minor and quieter discourse in things eschatological that focuses on the doctrine of the last things from the dimension of space rather than time.

I can thank Vitor Westhelle for finally clarifying this concept for me in ways I will never forget.

Westhelle's new book, Eschatology and Space: The Lost Dimension in Theology Past and Present, is wonderful for this reason alone--after reading it, you will think of eschatology more from a spatial perspective than ever before.

Westhelle is a fascinating modern Lutheran theologian for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he himself teaches and lives in multiple geographical locations. He is from the global South (Argentina) teaches in the new West (Chicago) and the old West (Denmark), and is fully conversant in the theological traditions of all three locales.

In this sense, although this book is thoroughly theological, it is also, on another level, completely autobiographical.

The basic thesis of the book is that liminal space, choratic spaces between spaces, are places of judgment. So rather than the last judgment being a moment in time for which we are waiting, the last judgment is a boundary space, passage, through which we travel. Westhelle calls this "trial by space."

In the course of the work, Westhelle thoroughly engages the Western theological and philosophical tradition and shows why the temporal dimensions of eschatology take prominence in that academic context. He then uses metaphors of maps and spaces and boundaries (even clothes) to illustrate how to think of eschatology in more overtly spatial ways.

Westhelle's theology thus has a basic liberationist feel to it, precisely because when eschatology is considered in spatial terms, it lifts up and gives a preferential option to the marginalized, those who daily live in and through the eschata of choratic spaces and liminal places.

Westhelle reclaims almost every single term in eschatological discourse for spatial reasoning. So parousia, so often considered also in terms of time, is for Westhelle about space and presence precisely because the direct translation of the term is "essence by." Similarly "eschata," though so often used to speak of a future time, is actually first of all about a spatial location or a geographical boundary. It can also indicate an order or rank, but even this definition is not primarily temporal.

A few quotes to tease potential readers into considering the book:

"This migration to the south and the departure of the 'heliotrope' as the commanding figure for the eschatological discourse was headed and led by what could be called a 'paradigm shift in theology' led by liberation theology, as the global movement of thinking theology outside the North-Atlantic canonic parameters."

"Eschatology is a discourse on liminality, marginality, on that which is in ontological, ethical, and also epistemological sense different."

"The kingdom of God is so close and nearby that we might have overstepped it in our amusement in the playgrounds of promise."

"The eschaton is a space between spaces, belonging to neither, yet adjacent to both, which is best expressed by the Greek word chōra, which etymologically means 'to lie open, be ready to receive,' a space between places or limits."

"The 'spatial turn' allows us to focus attention not only on the longitudinal view of historical development, but also on little stories and the space they occupy in everyday life."

"Eschatology is, therefore, not primarily about cosmic catastrophes or abstract speculations about time and eternity; it names the experience of a crossing in which the messianic is an occurrence in time that becomes kairotic, and in spaces, choratic. Such messianic experience in space and time entails a faint promise of a weak epiphany, not a cosmic Armageddon. However, such epiphanies are not given to the common gaze, but those who have been at the eschaton have a claim upon them. This claim taxes memory and keeps the flame of hope kindled."

"Eschatological experiences are vaguely analogous to the behavior of subatomic particles: in the moment it is located and detected, it is no longer there."